In the days after Superstorm Sandy smashed onto our shores, my neighborhood came together. The Vallones had a land line; the Heines had a generator. Everyone was sharing, cleaning up the damage, exhaling. But our relief was overshadowed by news from neighboring towns. Sea Bright was buried in wet sand, Union Beach, just gone, people said. A friend’s daughter had been trapped in rising floodwaterin Toms River and forced to huddle in an attic crawl space with her newborn son for hours.  Like many others, I began to wonder how I could help.

During this period, I bumped into my friend and neighbor Abby Daly, director of the Bridge of Books Foundation, at our local supermarket in Atlantic Highlands. She hadn’t showered for days. Her house was freezing. But, she said, the good news was that none of the books at the BoB storage unit in Red Bank had been destroyed.

I had been a supporter of Bridge of Books for a few years, volunteering for minor jobs like reading to school children on Read Across America Day. But I never felt the urgency of its mission as much as I did after Sandy. Hundreds of families were living in shelters. Surely the children could use the comfort of a book while their parents were busy trying to rebuild their lives. It was time to come up with a plan.

Abby decided to ask Bridge of Books volunteers to assemble tote bags, each containing three to five picture books suitable for preschoolers. She did not want to burden relief agencies, already swamped with donations, with unsolicited boxes of books.

Because I have a background as a reporter, I agreed to help figure out where to deliver the books. Shelters were off limits to the public. It was difficult to find out who was in charge. The Red Cross referred me to the State Office of Emergency Management, which referred me back to the Red Cross.  A statewide hotline for donated goods wanted large quantities of new items. My nearest food pantry, in Highlands, declined books and, in fact, offered me some for our project. Other sources dried up. People were busy and overwhelmed.

After days of searching, I got a crucial lead from a contact of Abby’s at the state Department of Labor. It was a spreadsheet containing the cell phone numbers of managers at Federal Disaster Recovery Centers across the state.

These centers, called DRCs ,help storm victims with insurance claims, FEMA grants and referrals to other agencies, like the Small Business Administration. There were 51 DRCs in New Jersey in early November. In February, there were 31. Now there are nine, housed in office buildings, storefronts and community centers.

When I called Eileen Lopez, the DRC manager in Bay Head, in November, she was thrilled by the offer of children’s books.

“I’d love it! Bring it on!” she said.

Bay Head was devastated and the National Guard was enforcing a 5 p.m. curfew there. She said she was at “Ground Zero.” Her clients had lost their homes and possessions. Many brought children to the center.

Ten DRC managers wanted our bags of books. So, using a Web application, SignUp Genius, I asked for volunteers to deliver about 150 bags to Bay Head, Brick, Sayreville, Leonardo, Hackensack, Atlantic City, Toms River, Newark, Hoboken, and Plainfield during the first week of December. Like me, volunteers were hungry to help, and they claimed the slots within hours. The New Jersey Youth Corps took some of the deliveries. I volunteered to drive books to Brick because I had to run an errand in Howell that week.

There I met manager Linda Hoskins, a warm, upbeat Indianan who has remained cheerful despite working from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. with only a few days off since the Oct. 29 storm.

“These are people who are shell shocked and need help navigating the system,” Linda said. “This can be a long, drawn-out affair. The waiting area is adequate at best.”

She gestured toward a row of molded plastic chairs lined against the walls of the center, housed in a former strip mall owned by the township.  Initially, the center drew 200 people a day. Now, between 50 and 75 visit each day, many with kids.

"Bags of Books" waiting for delivery to FEMA relief centers across New Jersey

Linda has called me three times to deliver bags of books – two dozen at a time, now including books for older children.

“You ought to see the smiles when you hand the books to the kids and you say, “you can take them home!’” she said.

She assured me she will keep asking for books until the center  closes, which, she says, is no time soon. Each time I visit, she tells me how grateful she is. Each time I leave, I call Abby and tell her how amazing it feels to be able to help.